Secret of Mana (2018) Review
Secret of Mana happens to be one of, if not the earliest video game memory I have as a child. I remember sitting closely next to the giant, wood-grain CRT monitor my family owned (which eventually died and became a makeshift table).
This was around Christmas time in 1993, shortly after the game was released. I remember even then it was a magical experience as I quickly fell in love with the visuals and the music, which for the time were magnificent. It’s one of my most cherished memories as an RPG fan, so much so that Secret of Mana remains one of my favorite RPGs of all time.
Fast forward 25 years later, and Square Enix announced they would develop a remake of the classic title. This came complete with updating the character models into 3D renders, a rearranged soundtrack helmed by original composer Hiroki Kikuta, the inclusion of voice acting, and more.
I was immediately floored by the reveal as it has been a series that has been mostly dormant for nearly a decade after Dawn of Mana (aka Seiken Densetsu 4) flopped. The fact this remake exists gives one hope after last year’s Adventures of Mana and Seiken Densetsu Collection that this could be the start of something more.
But let’s get back to the remake. After all, this is a review, and I want to approach this article from the perspective of someone like myself who adored the original. This isn’t just nostalgia speaking as I had the pleasure of playing through it again only a couple months ago on the SNES Classic, so my feelings for the game are relatively fresh. I would love to sit here singing praises about the effort, but unfortunately, this is a remake that doesn’t live up to its full potential.
First off, we should talk a little bit about the story. There is no pivotal new story content to speak of. Instead, there are story cutscenes and these short skits that pop up every now and then when you sleep at the inn where they talk about events that occurred recently. The script has also seen a retranslation.
For those who aren’t aware, the original translator, Ted Woolsey, only had 30 days to complete the 1993 localization for Secret of Mana. A large portion of the Japanese script had to be cut due to space limitations. As a result, many interactions with other characters tend to be very blunt. Here, there is a lot more exposition going on, for better or worse. While there are those who may appreciate how everyone cut to the chase in the SNES version, the script certainly appears far more developed here.
So let's turn to the sound design. The quality of the voice acting is all over the place, especially on the English voice track. It's an example of how inconsistent voice acting can harm the source material. You already have a good idea of what a character sounds like in your head, and then the voices paint a different picture.
Randi comes across as a whiny loser, while Primm presents herself as being more stuck-up than I remember. Popoi, on the other hand, is an example of a standout performance regardless of the language option you go with. It's odd for me to say this being as big a fan as I am, but the overall presentation makes it seem more like an anime. Even if that's the case, you should probably stick to the Japanese voice track.
The lips also don’t move when they speak, which is odd considering the models are very expressive during the cutscenes. Thankfully, you can turn the voice volume all the way down and be on your merry way. I will also say it’s kind of nice how they voiced all the villagers and other NPCs you come across on your journey. It’s just a shame the game loses some of its gravitas on the less-than-stellar performances.
I can’t say I am a big fan of the rearranged soundtrack, either. Hiroki Kikuta made some questionable composition decisions, like when he adds additional layers to the soundtrack that was not there before. Although many of the tracks remain true to the original structure of the songs, some of them sound downright unpleasant.
Right off the bat, “Into the Thick of It” came across as what I would describe as overwhelming with how dense it was with its excessive use of percussion, wind, and string instruments. The boss music just sounds like someone banging on a Casio keyboard.
Meanwhile, “The Oracle”, arguably the best song from the original soundtrack, loses a lot of its impact. It almost sounds like the beginning of Akira, then it turns into a muddled mess. Maybe it will grow on me over time, but when fighting Thanatos, rather than making me feel pumped up like I did in the past, the theme just gave me a headache.
There are a few noteworthy attempts, but the texture and melody of the original tunes are missing here. Of course, music taste is entirely subjective, and you always have the option of switching back to the original soundtrack.
The visuals are also a bit underwhelming, especially when you get up close. It comes across as a little cheap, almost as if the studio behind the project had a very limited budget to work with (I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t the case). What we are left with is a style that is less impressive than the 2D, sprite-based predecessor, which ends up denigrating the experience. Areas are less detailed and at times barren in comparison.
Bosses themselves look less impressive as they did before due to their smoothed-over models. I found myself looking up at the mini-map, itself modeled after the original 2D design, and just thinking how they may have been better off just cleaning that up. In fact, a lot of the concept art for the remake is gorgeous - I would love it if the next Mana entry was a 2D game in that design! For what it's worth, there is a level of charm with the new art style - it just may not win everyone over.
The animations could have also been improved upon, but instead, the janky style of running up to a shopkeeper or whipping your party across a gap is fully preserved in the transition, for some reason. There are even these technical hiccups like glitchy models and the pathing issues that STILL exist all these years later, especially in the Haunted Forest.
That isn’t to say there won’t be those who will appreciate the more contemporary graphical style, but it may just come down to personal taste. It’s certainly not an offensive interpretation, and it may be refreshing if you don't find appeal with the sprite-based design of the past. Bonus points for the fact the game runs a lot smoother than it did in the past. You could say that about the entire game - it looks a lot better in motion than it does in still images.
Combat has seen a few upgrades, such as the ability to add shortcuts to the trigger buttons, helping you avoid being stuck in the menus just to use the same skill over and over. You can also now move and attack in a true diagonal fashion, though the same goes for the enemy, leading to some intense encounters. The invincibility frames have been drastically lowered to the point where you can quickly bumrush an enemy, but if you get caught in a corner, chances are you'll end up dying if you can't find a way out.
Going back the menu, it's a little messier than it was before. For one thing, it won't remember the last thing you selected, which forces you to spin all the way around to an item once again. The ring also doesn't pop up over the head of the character you're wanting to perform an action with. Rather, it opens right in the center of the screen. I can't tell you how many times I had to reopen the menu over and over until I was sure I had Primm or Popoi selected to perform their magic spells.
You also have a lot less control over the AI of your teammates as before. The Action Grid was an incredibly helpful tool in the original game where you had control over the aggressiveness or passiveness of your party members including their distance and the level of attacks to be used. Instead, you have a very limited selection of telling the AI whether to assist you.
I kept having to fiddle with it because if I tell them to attack other enemies, they won't attack the one boss character since they refuse to attack the same enemy I'm dealing with. It adds an unneeded level of micromanagement for something that was already super useful. Be that as it may, the combat system is just as addictive as ever, especially with the much-appreciated return of the drop-in, drop-out local cooperative multiplayer.
There are so many obvious quality-of-life improvements the remake should have made. From having characters warp to you when they’re out of range to letting one compare equipment stats at the shop, there could have been so much more here.
You don’t even get the benefit of Mode 7 graphics when you get blasted out of a cannon! I’m glad I can still travel the world on the back of Flammie, but for some reason, they removed the ability to pull up a map when you press Start on the controller. A minor quibble for a game that encourages exploration, but an odd exclusion nonetheless.
At the end of the day, the Secret of Mana remake is somewhat of a disappointment. After defeating the final boss and setting the controller down, I couldn't help but have this uncomfortable feeling of what I just partook in. There are just so many missed opportunities and questionable design decisions.
While I appreciate their attempt to "modernize" the experience, this one doesn't seem so much as a love letter to the fans as much as an attempt to fix what wasn't broken. It won’t do anything to hurt a person’s enjoyment of the original, especially my own, but it’s altogether a lackluster effort for something that could have been so much more. In the end, you may be better off investing in the SNES Classic and trying it out that way instead.